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Book Review, NRJ 66.2

June 04, 2021 11:16 AM | David Eddy

Captain Cook and the Search for Antarctica

James C. Hamilton

While the history of James Cook’s voyages and his accomplishments is well known to anyone interested in British maritime history, Captain James Cook and the Search for Antarctica by James Hamilton offers an in-depth focused look at the less researched subject of Cook’s travels, the search for the last unknown continent. Since antiquity, it was believed that a land in the south must exist to counterbalance the land in the north. Maps dating back to the Middle Ages frequently depict the legendary land Terra Australis Incognita, the “Unknown Southern Land.” Antarctica, as we call the land today, remained intangible and elusive to many explorers until the nineteenth century.

Hamilton’s book explores the unofficial purpose of James Cook’s voyages: the search for the Southern Continent. While the British Admiralty maintained that the official purpose of Cook’s first voyage was scientific, to observe and record the transit of Venus, the voyage had a secret mission. The mission was revealed to Cook in a set of sealed letters after he fulfilled the official astronomical task. Cook was instructed to find the location of Antarctica, and if possible, claim the new land for England. An analysis of Cook’s Antarctic and sub-Antarctic navigation in the Southern Ocean is the main focus of Hamilton’s book.

Hamilton, a retired scholar of British history, begins his narrative with a brief summary of Cook’s life and his three legendary voyages undertaken in the years 1768-1779. He also offers a concise overview of prior attempts to locate Antarctica by Cook’s contemporaries. Using Cook’s journals and master’s log books, Hamilton moves on to analyzing Cook’s excellent seamanship and knowledge of ocean navigation. Hamilton stresses Cook’s remarkable competency as a captain and his unmatched bravery to venture more south than any man before him. Cook was able to sail as far south as 60 degrees south latitude on his first voyage. Even though he did not locate Antarctica then, the journey in the southern latitudes served as a “narrowing of options,” eliminating a large chunk of the Pacific Ocean from his future searching trajectories.

Hamilton frequently emphasizes Cook’s accomplishments, not only as a skilled seaman but also as a scientist. He underlines Cook’s astonishing ability as a surveyor and a cartographer, as well as his observations of sailors’ nutrition and mental health. During Cook’s second voyage, where once again he was instructed by the Admiralty to search for the Southern Continent, Cook was able to cross the Antarctic circle three times. He reached 71 degrees south latitude, discovering and surveying South Georgia Island and South Sandwich Islands in the process. Even though Cook did not get to see Antarctica, only its ice barrier, he concluded that if the Southern Continent existed it would be covered by ice, uninhabitable, and of no commercial value to England. Ultimately, Cook’s voyages changed the understanding and maps of the Southern Continent and laid ground for future discovery.

Captain James Cook and the Search for Antarctica is well researched and Hamilton’s exceptional historical investigation is noteworthy. Hamilton provides the readers with extensive excerpts from Cook’s and his scientist companions’ journals as well as from officers’ master log books. While these thorough accounts inspire the imagination and allow readers to perceive the journey and the search for the most elusive continent, the book is an academic read. I would recommend this book to scholars of maritime history and anyone who is interested in factual details of eighteenth-century seafaring.

  • Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2020
  • 6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, xiii + 303 pages
  • Illustrations, maps, tables, notes, bibliography, index. $42.95
  • ISBN: 9781526753571

Reviewed by Ewa Silver East Carolina University

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